Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Global Fund for Women: An Interview with Kavita Ramdas

"I think there are many different ways in which you define leadership. As a feminist, and as a feminine feminist, I truly believe that we don't do a very good job in the United States of believing that you can lead by serving, and I think the United States needs to think deeply about being in service of the rest of the world." -Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO, Global Fund for Women.

Kavita Ramdas is the President and CEO of the nonprofit, the Global Fund for Women. She has been the recipient of many awards, including Fast Company's 2007 Social Capitalist Award, and the League of Women Voters' Women Who Could Be President Award. I had the opportunity to interview her on March 6th for the Big Vision Podcast, and have included an edited transcript of the interview below. It's long, but I hope you'll take time during your coffee or lunch break to read, or listen to her inspiring words. I think it's worth it (:

Kavita Ramdas: The Global Fund for Women is the largest independent, publicly supported grant-making foundation to advance women's human rights internationally. It works in over 160 countries around the world. I think what makes us unique is that we are really investing in women's leadership and women's creativity in developing local solutions to some of the world's most challenging problems.

Britt Bravo: I think one of the things that make the Global Fund special is how women can submit grants, the lack of bureaucracy involved, and maybe you can talk a little bit about how you choose the people who are funded.

KR: The Global Fund for Women has an extraordinary commitment to keeping our doors open so that as many organizations working to advance women's human rights internationally can really gain access to resources that they so desperately need. Therefore, we are the only foundation I know of that will accept requests in any language, and in any format.

You can email us, you can fax us, you can write to us in Kiswahili or in Arabic, and it will be our responsibility, using our wonderful network of supporters, volunteers and paid translators, as well as our incredibly language proficient staff, to be able to respond in a way that makes it accessible, no matter how remote a corner of the world your organization happens to be based in.

I think my favorite example of that is a women's group from the highlands of Bolivia who wrote to us maybe seven or eight years ago. They were a group of illiterate women who dictated their requests to a priest in the village, who then hand wrote the request. They wanted to create a literacy program for themselves because now there was a school where their children could go to school, but they felt embarrassed that they couldn't support their children because they themselves were illiterate.

I remember that the letter was signed with five thumbprints of five illiterate women. Three years later when we received a report back from the group about how they had done, there were five shaky signatures.

To me, that sort of sums up something very special about the way in which we try to make these resources accessible to women-led initiatives that are often some of the most creative that we are seeing on issues ranging from the environment, to health, to education, to building peace and sustainable communities around the world.

I think the biggest challenge for us is trying to make hard decisions. Each year we receive over 3,500 proposals from women's organizations all around the world. Many of them do really meet our basic criteria of being women-led, of reflecting the work of a group of women, rather than just one or two individuals, and of really tackling critical human rights challenges and societal challenges in which women are playing key roles. We simply don't have the resources to be able to fund all of those, and we need to make some hard choices.

In that context, something else that sets us apart is the use of a very extensive advisory network that the Global Fund uses as our eyes and ears on the ground, women and men from many different parts of the world who are based in the countries where we are making grants to support and advance women's human rights. They help us by going to visit the groups, by recommending groups to us, and by talking about some of the broader challenges that face women in the particular context that they are in.

Those advisors also help us set some priorities, which we use then to sort of say: OK, if we only have this much money for Latin America, and we know that the women of Haiti and Colombia, because of the violence and because of the poverty in those two countries, are in particular need, and our advisors from all different parts of Latin America have said that to us, then we are going to prioritize requests from those countries.

And yes, it may mean that a group in Argentina, that is certainly deserving by our basic standards, may not get a grant this year, so that we can support very worthwhile and important requests from a group that has even less access to resources in Haiti. Those are some of the ways in which we try to make those decisions.

BB: How do you know that you are successful? How do you know that you are making a difference or an impact; how do you measure that?

KR: I think we all want to be able to get a sense of how the investments that we are making in women's leadership, in women's empowerment, and in women's real innovation around some of the world's most pressing challenges, whether that is HIV/AIDS, or whether it is violence against women, or whether it is economic underdevelopment, what kind of difference we are making. I think it is always a challenge for any organization to be able to really assess what difference their own investments have made to the outcomes that they want to see.

The Global Fund tries to measure those results, not so much by our own standards, but by the standards that the groups that we support set for themselves. In the case of the women I spoke about earlier, they really wanted to measure their success by being able to read and write and sign their own letters, and write their own reports. The measurement of success was the annual report that we got from them three years after the signatures, which had originally been thumbprints, that now had signed signatures. For them, that was a measure of change and a measure of impact.

I think an area in which we are constantly striving to improve is to be able to do more of an amalgamation of what is the collective impact of many, many, many, many of these kinds of investments. Maybe the best way to give you an analogy for that is when you drop a stone into a pond, it creates a ripple effect. You can see the ripples kind of spreading out, but you don't know whether one ripple caused a tadpole to swim a different direction, you don't know whether a bird flew away because the ripples made it change its mind, you don't know whether a flower that might not have grown in that place now is growing in that place.

I think that is an area in which in our new strategic plan we are really committed to strengthening that understanding of how do all these efforts collectively contribute to stronger, more sustainable, more democratic communities. We have sort of an instinctive sense that they do, and we have many anecdotes that give us a sense of what change this is creating, but I think we need to do a better job of being able to balance both the quantitative numbers, that we can actually put together, with some of these qualitative stories, and that is an area in which we are continuing to try and do more work.

BB: You said that the advisers you have are always giving you the lay of the land to tell you what are the issues that are most pressing, or which areas need the most assistance. What are those issues or areas right now that you are seeing really need the most help?

KR: I think a major concern, from the very founding of the Global Fund, has remained a concern despite the fact that this year we celebrate our 20th anniversary of grant making, and that is access to the financial resources necessary to take the work that women do on a daily basis in their communities to the next level of impact.

One example of that I could give is that the organizations that we fund, collectively in the last 20 years have access to maybe annually something like 75 million dollars (philanthropic dollars) that they have the ability to use and pour into the work that they are doing.

If you compare that to the budgets that we spend in just one day on fighting a war in Iraq, or the cost of an F16 fighter jet, you get some sense of how inordinately skewed those are. But even if you don't compare it to those kinds of investments, but simply investments in philanthropy, a recent study that just came out from the Foundation Center showed that it is about 5.8 to 5.9% of total philanthropic resources each year that actually directly go to benefit women and girls, and that includes both domestic and international grant making.

When you think about the 90 billion odd dollars that go each year in support of philanthropy, you can see that there is still a lot of work to be done. So that is one critical area, just simply access to the resources themselves.

A second critical area for women in general across the world, whether it is in the former Soviet Union, or Eastern Europe, or in what we know as the developing world, or refer to as the developing world, is the ongoing question of violence: violence inside the homes that affect women from the time that they are born, even whether they can be born in countries like India and China where female infanticide and sex selective abortion are commonly practiced, all the way to domestic violence, violence that happens as a result of things like honor killings, violence that happens as a result of spousal abuse. All of those forms of violence combined with violence outside the homes.

Women and their children are disproportionately victims of outside violence as well. If there is a war, or if there is an ethnic conflict, or if there is a civil war within a country, women and their children are the majority of those who tend to be displaced. They are the majority of those who actually experience physical violence. Increasingly, rape of women is being used as a tool of war, not just in large scale wars as we saw in the Serbian and Bosnian conflict, but as we saw recently in Kenya and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So violence continues to be a really significant challenge that women face, and the women's rights groups that the Global Fund for Women supports worldwide focus on how to both educate the public and the general community and families about why violence occurs, what are the root causes, how can we shift behaviors and patterns, how can we use negotiations to end violent conflicts, and also to teach that violence only breeds more violence because mothers understand that children who have been victims of abuse in turn are much more likely to either be abused themselves, or to grow up into abusers.

That same lesson I think women have taken to a whole different level in being on the forefront of peace work internationally. I just saw a remarkable film made about a grantee organization that the Global Fund had supported for many years in Liberia. A truly remarkably story of very every day mothers and daughters in Liberia who were just so sick of the civil war between Charles Taylor, and then the rebels in Liberia, being funded with Sierra Leone diamonds essentially, that they mobilized an entire community of women around peace.

My favorite scene from the movie is these women, all ages, all sizes, going to surround the peace talks in Ghana, which were essentially going nowhere. They had been sitting for two weeks and nothing had happened, no one was willing to really make a compromise, and the women joined hands and they locked the men, it was all men who were actually in the peace negotiations, into this room and said, "We will not let you out until you come up with a deal."

When you hear something like that, I think you begin to get a sense of the power that women actually have to collectively mobilize. Even though they are the victims of violence, I think they are also the most creative in imagining solutions, and defining solutions to ending violence. We have seen that in other places as well such like in Rwanda, and in the Middle East and numerous other places.

I think a third major issue that women face is not the challenge that women's organizations face in terms of funding, but just the poverty itself that women and children find themselves in. Women and children are 70% of those who live on less than $2 or $1 a day. They are disproportionately vulnerable to malnutrition, to all kinds of abuses that follow from extreme poverty: sexual exploitation, selling of their own bodies as a way in which to survive, what is often called survival sex, the entire vulnerability to trafficking, the lack of economic security. I think a large number of women's rights mobilizing efforts are really focused around building and strengthening economic independence for women.

What we know, when you asked earlier about impact, is there have been enough World Bank studies to show that when you ensure that a mother or a women in the household actually has control over increases in income, that shows up almost immediately in the increased well being of everybody in the household, whereas the same thing is not true if you are talking about increases in male income.

I would say that those are some of the challenges that the women's movement faces today. I think another major one is the challenges that have come from globalization. Women now form the majority of those who are migrants in the world. The challenges around how women's poverty is exacerbated by a process of globalization, which on the one hand gives them new opportunities, and on the other hand takes away certain kinds of economic securities that they have known in the past. We have been seeing an increased attention that women's rights groups have been bringing to this whole question of globalization and migration, and how women workers are being affected by this.

Lastly, I would say the fourth issue that I think remains a very, very critical factor for women, and a very high priority, is the environment. Women and girls are really on the frontlines of where the rubber hits the road in terms of the destruction of our natural resources and our natural environment, and people tend not to think about that.

I think in the United States, the environmental movement is seen very much as a movement that is about protecting species, and is in a way almost a privilege of an upper class white elite. That isn't the case in the developing world. In the developing world, or for that matter actually, in poor communities across the United States, poor communities disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental degradation. They are often in the places where toxic dumps, and other kinds of dumps are housed.

And women in the developing world, who are responsible for the collection of fuel and water, they know firsthand that if you have deforested a region, they have to walk not two miles or three miles in search of firewood, but maybe 10 miles or 15 miles. They are the first to know if water sources are polluted because they are the ones who go to fetch the water. They are the ones who wash their clothes in the river and they know what the state of the rivers are.

So, it is not surprising, again, that we see women stepping up as leaders in environmental activism and a resistance to the total destruction of planet earth.

I remember a very wonderful woman from Sierra Leone, Sarandabba, saying to me, "You know in a war, women are raped, but Mother Earth is also raped. We know what it is like to be raped, and we don't want our Mother to be raped." I think that would be the fifth area that I would highlight as being a really critical one that has emerged as a real priority for women and their communities.

BB: Why do you do the work that you do, what brought you to this work? There are any number of things you could take this passion and use it towards, but what causes you to do this work?

KR: For me it is very simple. I think I was very fortunate to be inspired by my "she-ro", who is my mother, and by her mother, my grandmother, who is an extraordinarily independent, feisty 93-year old.

My mother believed very deeply that being privileged middle class Indians, the community that I grew up in India, required us to have a commitment and a sense of giving back to the communities that we grew up in and around, and to really seeing those communities. I think it is very common, particularly the poorer the country that you live in, if you are privileged within those countries, sometimes to make it through the day you build up a hide so thick that you inure yourself to the suffering that you see around yourself.

My mother did a good job of stripping away those protective layers, and forcing us to look at, see, understand and question, why the vast majority of Indians lived under the poverty line and didn't have access to resources. She made it almost impossible for me not to look at those questions. I didn't necessarily know what I was going to do about them then.

I also think I do this work for my daughter. If I am inspired by my mother, I am also driven in some sense by the next generation. I believe very deeply that the choices we make and the opportunity to really achieve gender equality in the 21st Century are the kinds of decisions which our daughters will look back at and say, "I am able to do this because my mother was there, my mother did this, she stood up for it, she fought for it."

I think in the United States, it is rare these days to remember the sheroes. It is a good thing we are doing this in Women's History Month. I think if I asked an average American woman walking on the street who Jeannette Rankin is, they wouldn't know who she was. They wouldn't know she was the first women to be elected to the US Senate. They wouldn't know she was a pacifist who twice voted against the United States going to war, both in World War I and then again in World War II. They wouldn't know she had stood with Gandhi in his resistance to the British, and supported his policy of nonviolent resistance to British colonialism.

Women like Jeannette Rankin, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women like Alice Paul, women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and Gloria Steinem, and this extraordinary list of giants on whose shoulders we stand now in the United States, have made it possible for us to take our rights for granted.

I am quick to remind people in the United States that those rights were fought for. 70 years ago you and I would not have been sitting here having a conversation about doing things internationally, much less being able to even open a bank account in our own names. Those are the same struggles that women are facing in other parts of the world today.

I really want to be a part of making a difference for the future of my daughter, and having her live in a world where all people and all children, girls and boys, women and men, really have the opportunity to fully realize their human rights. I think that is what really motivates me to do this work.

BB: You just published an article in The Nation where you were talking about how you are getting all these emails from feminist leaders saying, "This is why I am supporting Clinton," or "This is why I am supporting Obama," and the point that you made, which I thought was wonderful, was you felt that the arguments were missing any sense of how our decisions affect the well being of people across the planet.

I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that, because I feel like that's such an important point that's really being missed in all this coverage and discussion of who is the best candidate.

KR: First, I want to point out that the feminist movement in the United States actually has always been strongly internationalist. People like Robin Morgan, people like Gloria Steinem, many people before them as well, always had a deep sense of international solidarity. I think Robin Morgan coined the phrase "Sisterhood is global." People like Charlotte Bunch at the Center for Women's Global Leadership, spoke first about women's rights being human rights.

I don't want us to get confused. I think feminists in the United States have always had a strong sense of international solidarity. I think what's different is that overall the United States is insulated from the rest of the world, and our politics are particularly insulated from the rest of the world, so that although we think about international solidarity and global solidarity with the women's movement when we are focused on, "women's movement issues," we don't seem to bring that same sense of connection when it affects something that is seen as being primarily a domestic issue, which in this case is the Presidential elections.

Having said that, I do believe that America straddles this very interesting place, where on the one hand it sees itself as a leader in the world, and it sees itself as an exceptional power in the world, but then it's sort of ambivalent about whether or not it actually wants to take on that mantle fully. In the same way that I think it's ambivalent about what I believe is its greatest strength which is, like Barack Obama if you will, that the United States truly is a microcosm of the whole world in a way that many other countries can't even dream of being.

Almost nowhere else in the world can you go and find the range of nationalities, ethnicities, race, language and backgrounds that you have here--not to mention the delicious food. Yet, I think this is a country profoundly ambivalent about whether or not that is a good thing and a strength, or whether it's somehow eroding the core, puritanical Anglo-Saxon values that define this country, which in itself is a bit of myth because this is country with a strong Native American tradition that far predated the Anglo-Saxon visitors who arrived here. In fact, some of the earliest roots of the democracy that the United States is so proud of are actually rooted in that Native American tradition that we rarely stop to remember.

I think my comment in The Nation was really more about that. Was really to say, we can't at once be the most powerful, forceful, military, economic and other might in the world, and then not be conscious and aware of the fact that something like the election of who will lead this country has profound implications for the rest of the world, particularly profound in the aftermath of eight years of a Bush administration that has been really seen by the rest of the world as being completely cavalier in many ways, about its sense of being in community with.

I think there are many different ways in which you define leadership. As a feminist, and as a feminine feminist, I truly believe that we don't do a very good job in the United States of believing that you can lead by serving. I think the United States needs to think deeply about being in service of the rest of the world. How does it serve the rest of the world? How does it serve its own people? That was what I was alluding to in my article, wishing for the sake of the women and girls, who we feel deeply connected to here in our work at the Global Fund for Women, that there would be some of that greater consciousness displayed and evident. I talked mainly about the Democratic candidates, but certainly I would hope for the same for anyone who is running on the Republican side as well.

BB: You do a lot of interviews. What do you wish people would ask you?


What is the thing you think, "I wish they would just ask me about . . . I want to talk about this."


KR: It's interesting, I always find that I learn something from the ways in which different people ask questions. It always makes me think about things in different ways. I think certainly one thing that, as the leader of an organization that has to raise every penny I give away, I do sometimes wish people would ask me about, "How can I contribute to the Global Fund for Women? What could I do to raise more money for you? How could the Global Fund for Women be in a more secure financial position?" Somehow that's never the question I get asked.


How about this? "I've just come into a fortune, and I'd love to be able to make sure the Global Fund for Women never had to worry again about how to raise money. Could I make a contribution?"


Those might be some of the questions I'd love to get asked.

BB: So, how can people who are listening support the Global Fund for Women? How can they help to support you, and help you be more financially stable, and all those things?

KR: Well, I think people like yourself who work in the media, and who are journalists and who blog, can do a great job of telling the story of why investing in women is such a remarkable way of making change in the world. Whether your passion is the environment, or whether your passion is building peaceful and sustainable communities, or whether your passion is girls' education, or whether your passion is health, there's probably no better way to get to your outcome than to make significant investments in women's well being, and women's empowerment and women's human rights. I think that's one thing people could be doing, spreading the word, those of you who that do that for a living.

For others, I think it is thinking about making contributions. I hear very often from people that they feel like, "Well, what difference will my small contribution make?" I like to remind people of the fact that for $50 you can put a young girl through school in Afghanistan for a year. That's less than the cost of one latte a day per month for the next 12 months. It's something worth thinking about.

So, when you say, "I'm not John D. Rockefeller, I'm not the Gates Foundation. I really don't have money to give to the Global Fund for Women, " I'd like you to think about the young girl who sent us her Bat Mitzvah check for $25 and said, "I didn't know there were parts of the world where girls like me couldn't go to school, and this is my gift to the Global Fund for Women."

Writing us a check, making a donation, think about whether you can get your corporation to make a gift or sponsor the Global Fund for Women, buying a table at our 20th anniversary event coming up in New York in June, there are so many ways to make a difference.

Lastly I think by doing what Eleanor Roosevelt called, "The work of human rights that start in small places close to home." I am always a big believer in that. Walking your talk around human rights. This year, 2008, is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mary Robinson, who was a former President of Ireland, and a former Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN is working with a group called, The Elders, that includes Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and Ela Bhat from India on really raising awareness about this historic anniversary--60 years of a charter that truly is a reflection of our shared human values.

What do you know about the charter for human rights? When did you talk about it recently? How do you manifest that at home? Do you ask your son to clean up as often as you ask your daughter? Does your daughter get to go on golfing trips, or other non-traditional things, or go to a baseball game with her dad? And does your son get to do stuff that maybe is considered traditionally gendered as female? I think taking those steps at home are also things we can be doing to make a difference.

So on a multiple set of fronts, there is much you can do to support the Global Fund for Women and we hope that you will raise both awareness and resources to make a difference in women's lives.

Britt Bravo: This work that you do, the goals are so long term, it is not like it is all going to be solved next year, and you have been doing this work for a long time. How do you sustain yourself, how do you keep yourself going, how do you keep yourself inspired?

KR: Actually that is the easiest part of this job. Every day you come into the Global Fund for Women and there is one more new story about some amazing women's groups that have done some amazing new thing, or have taken on some big challenge.

Last year, we had this fantastic experience of not only Michelle Bachelet winning the Presidential election in Chile, thanks to women's groups organizing and supporting her, but Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf winning the election for President in Liberia, again, also because women were hugely involved in mobilizing around her.

We had at the end of the year, the incredible success of Mexican women's rights groups that have been working for, it must be close to 12 years now, on the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico. They got a win. Finally, Mexico City passed legislation that made it possible for abortion to be legal in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, groundbreaking for a Catholic country like Mexico. It hasn't happened in Latin America's history.

It is not that we aren't seeing the wins. The year before that, women in Morocco won an amazing change in the law. Until then, women had been considered minors under the law. You had to have a husband, or a father, or a brother accompany you for almost any significant act, from opening a bank account to getting your own passport. That has completely changed and Moroccan women are taking that information and doing massive street theater programs and education programs to take it out into communities.

I think every day we see evidence of how this work is actually bearing fruit, how it is making a difference in the lives of individual women and girls. Whether it is somebody writing to us and saying, "I was able to say no to a forced or an arranged marriage," or "I just completed my last year of secondary school and I was able to do that because a women's group gave me a scholarship to go," or "My mother didn't make me go through cutting, through a female genital procedure where my genitals where cut, because she learned from a women's organization she was involved with that it was harmful for my health."

There are thousand of different ways in which I think I get sustained and get replenished, and I am full of a sense of hope and possibility. So I don't think that's really the issue. I think the much more draining challenge is really the challenge of being on the side of trying to run and manage an organization within a sector in the United States.

I recently heard Akaya Windwood of the Rockwood Leadership Program say, "I'm not going to call these nonprofit organizations anymore. We should call them social benefit organizations." I am very inspired by that. I really think the role that social benefit organizations play, both here in the United States, but also across the world, is truly pioneering work and deserves to have both much more respect, and far more resources invested. And that's the area in which, if anything, I feel a sense of sometimes being drained, but I am deeply fortunate to work in a field where I get replenished all the time.

BB: Is there anything else that you want to share with listeners that you haven't gotten to talk about, that you want them to know either about the work that the Global Fund for Women does, or about women's issues, or anything else that you would like to share?

KR: I think that I'd encourage all our listeners to think about not using the term "women's issues" anymore. I don't believe there is any such thing. I don't believe that 51% of the world's population, which is what we are, doesn't care about all the critical issues that affect us. I believe that women have the right to express an opinion on all issues, and I will strongly challenge us to speak out and speak up against the ghetto-ization of the few issues that somehow we are supposed to care about, and then the more serious ones, like the military and the economy and the war will somehow be left to those other people.

These are issues that should affect and concern all of us who care about free, open and democratic societies. Without the voices of 51% of the world's population, our chances of making this world a better place for all of us are about zero. So that is something I'd love to be able to share. No more "women's issues." All issues are issues we care about, women's right to speak on all issues, you've got me there.


  1. Anonymous6:46 PM

    Dear Britt,
    WOW! The power of this interview was just amazing. As president of Dining for Women, my passion is changing the face of poverty through the power of collective giving and also making individuals aware of the challenges and obstacles that women around the world face. Kavitas Ramdas made these issues very clear during your conversation with her. The statistics regarding the extremely low number of philanthropic dollars donated to women and girls and the fact that number includes BOTH national and international donations is startling! When 70% of the world's poorest people are women, doesn't it make sense that the biggest impact in changing poverty will be through the development of women and girls? I am grateful to organizations like Global fund for Women and for people like you, all of us doing our part to change the world.

  2. Thanks for sharing the interview on the Dining for Women blog as well, Marsha.

  3. Anonymous9:22 AM

    Hello, Britt,
    congratulations for your great site! I study English through this site: and I would like to know if the mp3 files of your interviews are also under Creative Commons, so I could share some of your materials with my colleagues in the library of the site.
    Thanks a lot.

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    Unfortunately the host I use, Libsyn, doesn't allow me to post a Creative Commons license, but yes, you may use my Big Vision Podcast audio files as long as you credit them to me, link back to the Big Vision Podcast: and send me a link to the site where they are being used.

  5. Dear Britt,
    Am amazed by the information you provided in this interview. We need more women like you who are willing and ready to positively change the lives of other women. Bravo!! Keep up with the good spirit. You are very right- empowering women especially at the grass root levels leads to a more economically, social, intellectual and politically developed community.
    Carol Kisato (Kenya)


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